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US: North Korea suspends nuclear activities, takes food aid

  • US food aid ship

    FILE: In this July 2008 photo, a U.S. ship arrives in the port of Nampo, North Korea, carrying 37,000 tons of bulk U.S. wheat. (AP)

  • Kim Jong Un

    In this undated image made from KRT video, North Korea's new young leader Kim Jong Un, third from right, watches jet fighters with North Korean officials at an undisclosed place in North Korea. (AP Photo/KRT via APTN)

As its population suffers widespread malnutrition, North Korea has agreed to suspend uranium enrichment and put a moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile tests in exchange for 240,000 metric tons of food and the promise for potentially more to come.

U.S. State Department announced Wednesday that after two days of talks in Beijing last week the North has agreed to allow International Atomic Energy Inspectors to verify and monitor the moratorium on uranium enrichment and confirm disablement of its nuclear reactor at Yongbyon.

"To improve the atmosphere for dialogue and demonstrate its commitment to denuclearization, the DPRK has agreed to implement a moratorium on long-range missile launches, nuclear tests and nuclear activities at Yongbyon, including uranium enrichment activities. The DPRK has also agreed to the return of IAEA inspectors to verify and monitor the moratorium on uranium enrichment activities at Yongbyon and confirm the disablement of the 5-MW reactor and associated facilities," spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.  

Calling the agreement "important, if limited, progress," Nuland said in return the U.S. will work to finalize details for a proposed package of 240,000 metric tons of food aid "with the prospect of additional assistance based on continued need."

North Korea issued a similar, although differently worded statement released simultaneously in Pyongyang. An unidentified spokesman from North Korea's Foreign Ministry said in its statement carried by the state-run news agency that the North agreed to the nuclear moratoriums and the allowance of U.N. inspectors "with a view to maintaining positive atmosphere" for the U.S.-North Korea talks.

Last week's talks were the first negotiations since Kim Jong-Il's death in December from a heart attack. His son, Kim Jong-Un, succeeded him.

"The U.S. still has profound concerns, but on the occasion of Kim Jong-Il's death, I said it is our hope the new leadership would choose to guide the nation to a path of peace by living up to its obligations. Today's announcement is a modest first step in the right direction," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said.

"This is just one more reminder that the world is transforming around us," she added.

The deal comes amid long unsettling reports from the highly secretive nation that show a majority of its 24.5 million population is so hungry, grass is a staple. 

The country suffers massive shortages in resources, most of which go to the military. Chronic food shortages are exacerbated by a lack of arable land, poor soil, insufficient fertilizer, collective farming practices and barely any tractors or fuel. 

Conditions have been abhorrent for decades, with the United Nations saying about 6 million -- one-quarter of the people in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea -- are facing starvation. After an especially difficult winter in 2011, the U.N. World Food Program launched an emergency operation to make up for a decline in humanitarian assistance and the country's own decision to buy only limited purchases of food staples. 

Before the elder Kim's death, the two sides had appeared close to reaching agreement on the U.S. providing "nutritional assistance" to needy women, children and the elderly, and North Korea freezing its uranium enrichment. Such a freeze was meant to lead to six-nation aid-for-disarmament talks that North Korea withdrew from in 2009.

North Korea requested aid from the U.S. and other nations in January 2011, and as recently as Monday, Nuland said the request for food would be judged purely on the basis of need and the ability of the U.S. to monitor its distribution because of concerns that aid could be diverted to the military. 

But while the U.S. has denied a quid pro quo between food aid and nuclear disarmament, on Tuesday, a top U.S. military officer in the Asia-Pacific told a Senate committee that U.S. conditions for providing food aid could be exchanged for international inspection of Yongbyon and other negotiations echoing the deal.

Adm. Robert Willard, chief of U.S. Pacific Command, said conditions under discussion include "cessation of nuclearization and ballistic missile testing, and the allowance of the IAEA perhaps back into Yongbyon."

Hearing the deal, Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., slammed the administration for "actively reneging on its assurances that it would not provide any financial incentives or food aid to North Korea in exchange for dubious commitments of cooperation toward denuclearization." 

"I am deeply disappointed, but not surprised, by the about-face. This is just par for the course for an administration that has a demonstrated record of misleading Congress and disregarding U.S. national security," Kyl said.

During the Feb. 23-24 talks, the U.S. avowed its recognition of the 1953 Armistice Agreement that effectively separated North and South Korea and reaffirmed it has no hostile intent toward Pyongyang.

The State Department added that the U.S. is prepared to move toward "people-to-people exchanges" in culture, education and sports and said U.S. sanctions against North Korea "are not targeted against the livelihood of the DPRK people."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.